Dennis Banks
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Dennis Banks Leads Walk to Standing Rock, D.C.

Supporters march alongside the Native American activist, who has ties to Santa Cruz

Native American activist Dennis Banks is part of the Longest Walk, which this year will stop in the Standing Rock Reservation on its way to Washington D.C. PHOTO: LEONIE SHERMAN

Dennis Banks, the 79-year-old Anishinaabe man who once faced down armed FBI agents and helped found the American Indian Movement (AIM), is wearing an apron and waving a spatula in the bustling kitchen of the Oakland Intertribal Friendship House.

“We don’t need any help back here,” he insists. He returns his attention and his spatula to the massive skillet filled with frying rice, onions, garlic and jalapeños. “It’s the women’s day off in the kitchen!”

Banks helped found AIM in 1968. Ten years later, he helped organize the Longest Walk, a journey from the West Coast to Washington D.C. to protest legislation that would have abrogated native treaties. Sunday evening, he led the kitchen crew in a traditional chant as they whipped up a meal at the end of the first day of the 39th annual Longest Walk.

“This walk is a prayer. It’s an honor,” explains organizer Ray St. Claire, an Eagle Clan Ojibwa. “This walk is serious stuff. If you believe in us, if you want to come with us, we welcome you.”

 

Taking a Stand

The Longest Walk will take a significant detour this year to visit the Standing Rock Reservation in North Dakota, where Banks has worked hard to stop construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL). One of President Barack Obama’s final acts was to instruct the Army Corps of Engineers to deny an easement where the pipeline would cross the Missouri River just upstream from the Standing Rock Reservation until a full environmental impact report was completed. One of President Donald Trump’s first acts was to reverse that decision. Construction of the final segment began on Monday, though the flow of oil may be halted with a court injunction.

Roy Murphy, a Muckleshoot native, says he was at Standing Rock for six months, but left to participate in this walk. “I’m walking for my people that have been hurt at Standing Rock, whose voices still aren’t being heard,” says the 23-year-old. He’s never undertaken a feat like this, but plans to go all the way to D.C., which will involve walking more than 20 miles a day, every day, for about five months.

Each year, the Longest Walk chooses an issue that highlights challenges faced by natives. In 2017 they are tackling the twin issues of opiate addiction and domestic violence.

Less than a year and a half ago, Banks’ granddaughter Rose was brutally murdered by the father of her child. Her body was buried in a shallow grave, covered with 3,000 styrofoam plates, doused in five gallons of gasoline and torched, in a failed attempt to destroy the evidence. That sense of loss isn’t unique to Banks’ experience.

“My girlfriend’s best friend was murdered last year by her boyfriend,” says St. Claire, shaking his head. “Every native person I know has a relative or a friend who’s suffered from domestic violence.”

In response to the brutal tragedies in their own lives, St. Claire and Banks visited 52 treatment centers and women’s shelters during 2016. They were stunned by what they discovered. “Native women aren’t just getting beaten, they’re getting annihilated,” explains St. Claire. “Domestic violence knows no color, no borders, no race. It doesn’t discriminate.” He exhales and falls silent for a moment. “Just like heroin.”

“One out of two babies on my reservation is born addicted to heroin,” St. Claire continues. “Opiates are the biggest threat to natives since smallpox. Our cemeteries are littered with people under the age of 21.”

 

Meal Life

Quite a few people under the age of 21 are gathered in Oakland on Sunday, Feb. 12, to celebrate and prepare for the long months of walking ahead. Before dinner, 80 people bow their heads in prayer. The group spans three generations. Young people bring meals to the elderly. Laughter and conversation buzzes around the room. The atmosphere is part mess hall and part reunion. Many have traveled far to see their old friend Dennis Banks.

“Dennis is an icon,” says Wounded Knee, an elder from the Me-Wuk tribe. “He stands with Chief Joseph, Crazy Horse, Martin Luther King Jr. and JFK. He’s of that same stature.”

Everyone present knows his history; how he participated in armed occupations at Alcatraz and Wounded Knee, spent 10 years fleeing federal charges and appeared in Hollywood movies like The Last of the Mohicans and Thunderheart. A charismatic but quiet man, Banks is best known for his thoughtful and sober leadership with AIM.

In its first year, AIM’s priorities were jobs, housing and protection from police brutality for the thousands of bewildered natives forcibly relocated to urban centers. Its purpose and achievements quickly expanded.

“AIM was a movement to let the world and other Indians know we still existed,” says a young Oglala Lakota woman named Olowan Martinez. “It woke up indigenous people in this country. Old people tell us that after AIM showed up they started seeing people in long braids again.”

Banks was highly visible in that movement to reclaim native ways. “Dennis is a warrior, he’s always making history. But he’s also a peacemaker,” explains Banks’ friend, Santa Cruz artist Daniel Owen Stolpe. “Russ Means liked to mix things up, but Dennis would come in and sweep the floor, make things right, calm things down.”

Though the 39th annual Longest Walk won’t come to Santa Cruz, Banks has a long history here. “I’ve been friends with Dennis for over 40 years,” says Stolpe, who has devoted his life to exploring traditional Native American culture through art. In 1974, Stolpe started the Santa Cruz-based studio Native Images to teach printmaking to native youth. “Dennis used to come stay at my apartment all the time, bringing freedoms runners and AIM supporters. He wrote the foreword for my book, Images and Myths.”

“Dennis raised the money for the first ambulance and fire truck on the Pine Ridge Reservation right here in Santa Cruz,” adds another old friend David Lommen. “Me, Daniel and Dennis drove those vehicles all the way from Santa Cruz to Pine Ridge.”

Lommen and Stolpe haven’t seen Banks in years, and they listen with rapt attention as their old friend addresses the crowd of walkers, runners and supporters after the meal at the Intertribal Friendship House.

“I will still be a principal elder on this walk,” says Banks. “But my main job will be to work until I see Leonard Peltier free.” In 1977, after an extremely controversial trial, Peltier was convicted of the murder of two FBI agents. He has spent 40 of his 71 years behind bars.

“Remember, after the Wounded Knee Massacre in 1890, the government gave 16 medals of honor to soldiers who murdered unarmed women and children. Our strategy is not to grovel before them,” says Banks. “I want to file punitive damages for all those years of keeping Peltier away from his children and grandchildren.”

Banks yields the floor to younger speakers and musicians. He seems ready to abdicate his leadership role, but not his tireless service. As the passionate voice of a young warrior from Standing Rock fills the room, Banks circulates through the audience, offering cleansing sage smoke to each individual before he sits quietly. His eyes twinkle as he silently surveys the room from the sidelines.

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